TopGear.com08 August 2012

Pikes Peak: a brief history

Learn about the hill climb’s most influential runners and riders since its inception in 1916

Pikes Peak racer

In 1915, a local hotelier called Spencer Penrose unwittingly created what would become America's second oldest motorsport event. Even more astonishingly, it had corners. Lots and lots of corners.

He requested permission from the Secretary of Agriculture to improve the trail leading up the east edge of Pikes Peak Mountain to accommodate the growing number of cars and tour busses hoping for a view from the summit. It cost him $500,000 to build, but Penrose was given a 20-year license that allowed him to charge a $2 toll.

But he needed a way to promote his (nearly) finished highway, so he sponsored a car and motorbike race up the mountain the following year. The winner of the inaugural Penrose Trophy was a chap called Rea Lentz who drove a homespun plane-engined car up the course in just under 21 minutes.

The race was a resounding success, but war disrupted things. It wasn't held again until 1920 but by this time the American Automobile Association (AAA) had sanctioned it.

Indy 500 hero, Otto Loesche, who went on to repeat his victory in 1924 driving an open wheel car, won it. This heralded a tradition of punting Indy-spec racers on knobly tyres up the hill, and attracting the series' top drivers - even Mario Andretti had a go.

By '29 a Stock Car division was added, adding a different breed of drivers, including the legendary Unser family, who remain the most victorious family in Pikes Peak history. They began racing up the hill in 1926 - the three brothers, Louis, Jerry and Joe, had been the first to take a motorcycle with sidecar to the summit.

In 1934 Louis won his first championship, which clearly gave him a taste for hillclimbing - he kept returning until his last race at the age of 70. In the early years, Louis and arch-rival Al Rogers traded crowns consistently between 1934 and 1951. When Al Rogers retired he had five victories, four second and two third place wins. Louis Unser, after posting his fastest winning Open Wheel time in 1953 (15 minutes, 15.40 seconds) had a total winning record of nine titles, three second and two third place finishes, earning him the King of the Mountain title.

In 1956 a second generation of Unsers took to the mountain - Bobby Unser had his first Open Wheel win, with Cousin Jerry Unser Jr. winning the Stock Car Division. Bobby's got the most titles of the Unsers, holding eight Open Wheel championships, two stock car titles, and in 1986 took the time record of 11:09.22 in his Audi Sports Quattro.

Bobby also raced to victory in the short-lived Sports Car division, and his time of 13:19.1 remains a division record. Brother Al Unser (who you may have heard of for Indy Car heroics) took the trophy for the Unsers in 1964 and 1965. Other Unsers drove in the Stock Car Division, with cousins Jerry Unser Jr. and Louis J. Unser Jr. both winning titles.

The third generation of Unsers appeared in 1976. During practice at the 1978 Bobby Jr. fell off the mountain at Blue Sky corner destroying the car his dad had raced ten years earlier, but a helicopter scooped up the car and within 24 hours it was rebuilt and ready for more practice.

In 1979, at the age of 17, Little Al Unser became the youngest driver to challenge Pikes Peak. In 1982, Bobby Jr. set a qualifying record that would stand for five years. In 1983 Bobby Jr. teamed with cousin Little Al, both competing in the Open Wheelers.

In the midst of the Unser blackout, a new class was established, and it caused quite a lot of fuss. The Rally division dragged the spotlight onto Pikes Peak, culminating in Walter Rohrl and Ari Vatanen's legendary drives up the mountain in their knee-weakening four-wheel drivers.

Through the years the road got wider and sections were paved piecemeal, but the course and race format have barely changed. That said, this year sees the first all-tarmac route to the clouds after work was finished in 2011.

But the same challenges remain - the weather changes from sunshine to sleet, thunderstorms, wind, hail, fog, or blinding snow, then drivers burst through the clouds for the finish line, where the weather conditions are just as variable.

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